The Who’s Tommy
Ricardo Montalban Theatre
When we old show-bizzie hippies finally closed up shop on the dawning of the age of you-know-what at the Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood in the early 70s, where our controversial and celebrated original west coast production of Hair had held court for its lengthy run, the first ever fully staged version of The Who’s rock opera Tommy was one of the first bookings to take our place there at the former home of the infamous Earl Carroll supperclub (currently the home of Nickelodeon Studios). Now, some 36 years later, Tommy has returned to Hollywood for a too-short run at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre, coincidentally located just a few blocks from where it debuted way back then in 1972 when dinosaurs still roamed the earth.
As I picked up my tickets on the sweltering global-warmed opening night of this new revival of Tommy, I was asked by Davidson & Choy’s superpublicist Laura Shane if I was “going to get wild tonight.” I replied, “Not unless you guys are passing out goody bags stocked with some of the drugs I ingested the first time I saw it.” Ah, I do miss the old days, galldurn it, but I was fortunate to share some wonderfully nostalgic memories of them (the days, not the drugs) with my dear friend Annette Cardona—Cha-Cha DiGregorio in the film version of Grease and the original showstopping Acid Queen opposite Teddy Neeley in that first mounting of Tommy at the Aquarius oh-so many moons ago—who accompanied me for this auspicious remounting of the piece at the Montalban.
Whatever your individual enhancement of choice, there’s no doubt Tommy hasn’t lost any of its punch over the years. This impressive recreation, if not exactly perfect, still has heaps going for it—especially considering the cost of financing such an epic presentation in today’s theatrical market. Directed by executive producer Brian Michael Purcell, this new version of Tommy first and foremost introduces James Johnson’s state-of-the-art hi-def EXP3D, an all-new sound system that stereophonically encompasses its audience members as each seat comes equipped with its own set of headphones—the audio equivalent of 3-D glasses for 50s sci-fi film aficionados.
Unlike the conventional headphone experience, where the soundscape is a straight line between the wearer’s ears, EXP3D Sound offers a personal aural experience that personifies the term “bells and whistles.” Not only are there bells and whistles ringing through the Montalban from Tommy’s pinball machines in Johnson’s remarkable sound plot, listeners experience everything from directionally located bomb blasts to hearing the quietest whispers of the Walkers as they discuss their son’s dubious future right in front of him.
As dynamic as is Johnson’s revolutionary sound design, as precision as is Dan Redfield’s crisp musical direction, and as fluid as Purcell’s staging often is on Brodie Alan Steele’s massive industrial set and under Jared A. Sayeg’s complicated lighting plot, there’s something surprisingly clunky and under-rehearsed about this production, with musical pauses and uncomfortably late cues that hopefully may improve after the jitters and pressures of opening night subside. This unevenness might also be attributed to the ensemble, with only 15 Equity-affiliated actors onstage here in a cast of 26.
With the major exceptions of LJ Benet and Lorenzo Doryon as, respectively, Tommy at ages 4 and at 10, as well as a charismatic young mover named Jamie Joseph, an obvious standout in the patchy ensemble, the non-union performers are quickly overshadowed by the more seasoned principal actors. This is particularly true of the ever-radiant Alice Ripley as Mrs. Walker (who played the role on Broadway in the original Des McAnuff Tommy) and the Joe Cocker-voiced PJ Griffith as a delightfully slimy Cousin Kevin. Tom Schmid as Captain Walker is an excellent foil for Ripley, particularly in their beautiful duets; the über-talented Jenna Leigh Green is in incredible voice in her too-brief turn as the pivotal Sally Simpson; and renowned guitarist Ronny Drayton is a huge asset as the Hawker.
Of the AEA actors employed here, the only disappointments are the lackluster Hank Adams, who missed so many golden opportunities as Uncle Ernie that the traditionally juicy character dries out almost immediately, and the legendary Nona Hendryx, who unfortunately walks through her cameo as the Acid Queen with more emphasis on her glaringly exposed derriere than her role—or, shockingly, her vocals.
Still and without a doubt, however, soaring above all other work and leaving everyone and everything else on this stage in his flashy dust is Aleks Pevec, who gives a career defining and completely knockout performance in the show’s demanding title role. Pevec’s gifts as an actor and dancer are obvious—even, ironically, during his character’s catatonic stage—but beyond the other two parts of his signature “triple-threat” talent, this kid has a voice that could fill the world’s biggest auditoriums. If the magnetic Mr. Pevec isn’t exactly a household name yet at this point, let just the right people see him, feel him and hear him as the definitive Tommy, and a star could instantaneously be born right here at Hollywood and Vine.
The Who’s Tommy plays through July 6 at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre, 1615 N. Vine St., Hollywood CA; for tickets, call 323.461.0663. For more information, visit www.ricardomontalbantheatre.info